Saturday, December 5, 2009

Believing in God(s)

Philosophy Talk, one of my favorite radio shows, aired a segment titled "Believing in God" a few years ago (that one can listen to online here). Ken Taylor, one of the show's hosts, prefaced the show with the following on the Philosophy Talk Blog:

"Today's show will be about the question whether it's still possible for smart, reflective people, fully cognizant with 21st century science, fully aware of the horrors of modernity, to believe in god."

Taylor then expresses a clear and concise sentiment that echoes my thoughts exactly:

"As a philosopher, I tend to want my beliefs to be based on either direct experience or reasoned arguments. Even if some belief of mine is not in fact so based, I like to flatter myself that all my current beliefs are capable of being, as it were, ratified by either some reasoned argument or by the testimony of direct experience. And I'd like to think that if it were to be decisively settled that some belief of mine could not be so , I would more or less spontaneously surrender that belief, more or less without regret or remorse or wishful thinking of any kind. It seems to me one could and should have much the same attitude toward religious belief. One should want to believe in the existence of god only if one is confident that such belief is capable of being ratified by either reasoned argument or direct experience."

Philip Clayton, Ken & John's guest on this show, replied:

"What we didn’t get to talk about . . . is exactly how one goes about reasoning about one’s 'worldview-level beliefs.' Surely we have to admit that the hold of reason is rather less firm at this level than at the level of our more specific beliefs. And yet philosophers – and indeed all rational persons – are compelled to at least attempt to reason about their worldview-level beliefs.

"Reflection at this sort of level is what the tradition has called metaphysics. It comes in many flavors: theistic, of course, but also naturalistic, physicalist, humanist, etc. Unfortunately, metaphysics – at least in the "grand tradition" that once played a central role in Western philosophy – has sort of fallen out of fashion. It’s too bad, in a sense, because human reflection does tend to move outward to these broadest of all questions."

I'm fascinated by this question of belief: How is it that people come to one belief or another, and how do they maintain their beliefs in light of contrary evidence? I see historical contingency in all religious beliefs that compel me to conclude that there's no such thing as one true religion. For example, a fundamentalist Church of Christ Christian in the American West today might imagine that her or his religion is the one true faith and that her or his interpretation of the Bible is the one true interpretation, but the Church of Christ didn't exist until the 1840s, the King James version of the Bible didn't exist until 1611, and Protestantism wasn't around until the 16th century. If this person were born in late 6th century Persia or in India in 1272 instead of mid-20th century U.S., he or she would likely have been a Zoroastrian, in the first case, or Hindu, in the second, etc.

As a result, I see all spiritual beliefs and religious practices as hues and fragments of some profound archetypal process rooted in the hazy mists of time immemorial and continuing on into the unforeseeable future. I agree with Joseph Campbell's conclusion that religion & mythology have an importance and relevance to individuals and cultures, but I also see clearly that religion can easily morph into the anti-intellectual, reactionary "opiate of the masses" that Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and others write about.

I'm keen to get people's perspectives on this installment of Philosophy Talk and the related blog posts.


1 comment:

  1. Talk of the Nation today had a segment on NPR religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty's new book, Fingerprints of God.